IF THE CURRENT president of the United States were to have his way, freedom of the press, a concept at the heart of the American experiment, would now be abridged if not abandoned. His totty-headed tirades insulting and threatening reporters with imprisonment, his shuddersome use of altered videos, and his rattlebrained desire to loosen libel laws, along with his determination to dispute facts and undermine the news media, should make every American tremble. Having enjoyed the liberties of the First Amendment since its ratification in 1791, Americans now take them — especially freedom of the press — for granted, but historically, that particular freedom has not been the order of the day. Battles for free speech have often been lost, even in Western democracies, and we must remain vigilant against any erosion of our own freedom of speech. Caveat lector! We need only look to one of our sister democracies — France — to understand how exceptional are the two centuries of press freedom Americans have maintained, and how fragile that freedom has suddenly become. After all, Americans gained press freedom as a result of their revolution, so one might easily assume that the French would have a similar narrative, but that would be a mistake. In France, despite its monumental literary and revolutionary history, press freedom has not endured with uninterrupted longevity. France can therefore serve as a warning and as a guide on how to recognize signals of encroachment. Yes, the French Revolution of 1789 rescinded the censorship and regulations that had accumulated over three centuries, but those freedoms were short lived. By 1810, under Napoleon, government control over printing and publishing was instituted once again, and it became heavily enforced beginning in the 1830s, under Louis Philippe. Censorship continued until 1881, when press regulations were relaxed and freedom of the press was proclaimed for at least the third time in French history. Old habits die hard.
Censorship had existed in France since the 13th century, when statutes were enacted that placed the copying of manuscripts and their sale under the jurisdiction of the University of Paris. France passed its first law regarding printed material in 1488, some four decades after the advent of the printing press: it required printers, like scribes before them, to be associated with the University, thus ensuring that academia had a monopoly on the spread of ideas. The explosion of printing in the 16th century resulted in the enactment of numerous press laws, including France’s first list of banned books — it appeared in 1544, a full 15 years before the Vatican issued its infamous Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1559. The Index went through 20 editions until it was finally abolished in 1966. Old habits, again.
The French state, when ruled by Catholic kings, decreed that books could not include any statements of heresy, sedition, or personal libel. Penalties ranged from fines and imprisonment to burning — and it wasn’t only books that were burned: printers and authors could be consigned to the flames as well. Louis de Berquin, a humanist author and translator, was convicted of heresy in 1529 for his Protestant beliefs; he had his tongue pierced, after which he was burned at the stake along with his books. Similarly, translator and printer Étienne Dolet was condemned as an atheist (and it didn’t help that he had printed the works of Rabelais) by the dogmatic theological faculty of the University of Paris in 1546 — he was first hanged, then burned at the stake with his books.
A team of censors read all books before they were published to detect if any of the prohibitions were present. According to historian Daniel Roche, before 1660, there were only about 10 French censors, but by 1789, just before the revolution, their number had grown to at least 160, partly to keep up with the growing number of publications. The royal stamp of approval was required for all printed books, and many a clandestine publisher wound up fined and imprisoned for violating this and many other laws and decrees issued by the body designated to enforce printing regulations in the 17th and 18th centuries — the Chambre Syndicale de la Librairie et de l’Imprimerie. (Today, à la George Orwell, we might call it the Thought Police.)
In 1649 Louis XIV ordered that printers and booksellers had to be French Catholics, of good character, and that they had to furnish a certificate from the University stating they were fluent in Latin and that they could read Greek, and throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, laws were constantly enacted regulating various aspects of the press. This essentially ensured that those in power, both secular and religious, had complete control over what was printed.
The Revolution of 1789 overthrew all previous regulations and made printing a branch of mechanical arts, which was not subject to royal authority — i.e., censorship. With the abolition of the monarchy in 1792, complete freedom of the press was proclaimed. Between 1789 and 1799, over 1,300 newspapers sprang up in France — although in 1797, under the Directory, the police were granted the authority to shut down newspapers and many were closed. After Napoleon became emperor in 1804, forceful censorship returned. Censors were given solid power and renamed Imperial Censors; by 1811, only four Parisian newspapers remained. Two years later, a law was passed requiring all printers to deliver one copy of every published book to the police. With Napoleon’s downfall and the Bourbon Restoration, censorship continued but was focused on eliminating references to Napoleon and to seeking out and prosecuting Bonapartistes.
With the Revolution of 1830 came hope for more liberty, in the person of the “Citizen King” Louis Philippe (1773–1850), who had pledged to protect freedom of the press. It didn’t take long for him to break his promises. (He was a cousin to Louis XVI, and monarchical habits should have been expected.) Paunchy, thin-skinned, and with a very peculiar hair style (was it a wig?), Louis Philippe detested being caricatured (as do most autocrats, then and now). An article on him in the British weekly Truth described Louis Philippe in 1840 as follows: “The heavy gold watch-chain and bunch of seals give him a bourgeois air. He has the manner of a man who stands well with his banker, and looks the type of the clever, prosaic, selfish, middle class which made him king.” (Despots seem always to be chrysophiles …) In 1848, just after he was overthrown, Louis Philippe was described as follows:
His management has been a cunningly-devised system of iniquity in all its basest shapes. Bribery has flourished; scandalous corruption, till the air was thick with it, and the hearts of men sick. Paltry rhetoricians, parliamentary tongue-fencers; mean jobbers, intriguers; every serviceable form of human greed and low-mindedness has [he] patronised.
(I assure you, this was written 169 years ago, not yesterday.)
Instead of the liberal policies that were promised as a result of the July Revolution of 1830, Louis Philippe immediately instituted press restrictions. By the end of his first year in office, newspapers were required to pay security deposits to the government so that if any fines were levied, the government had its money up front. (Let us hope that our current president’s knowledge of history remains at its present level.) In November 1830, a law was passed that forbade “all attacks […] against royal dignity, against the order of succession to the throne […] against his constitutional authority and the inviolability of his person.” Although burning at the stake was no longer used to punish printers, penalties for violating these rules were stiff: large fines and imprisonment. (The last burning at the stake in France seems to have been in 1784, for sodomy and murder.) Newspapers that wished to remain honest were left with the choice of either deliberately violating the laws — or skirting them with clever disambiguations.
The cat-and-mouse game for the press was made all the more fervid with the introduction of the medium of lithography, invented in 1798 but restricted from flowering by the chaos of the Napoleonic Wars; it only really began to flourish in the 1820s. As a puffy, pompous windbag (sound familiar?), Louis Philippe became the perfect target for caricature by artists disappointed and appalled at his behavior and policies. Lithography offered a much quicker and cheaper method of creating and distributing a picture than had the earlier methods of woodcut, engraving, and etching, and publishers were quick to take advantage. (Of course, before the Revolution of 1789, there had been scurrilous printed images and handbills attacking the monarchy, but there was no organized printed opposition for obvious reasons.)
Into this new arena entered the visionary caricaturist and publisher Charles Philipon (1800–1862), the publisher and editor of two renowned satire magazines, La Caricature (1830–1835) and Le Charivari (1832–1893). La Caricature was the first major political/satirical journal of its time, and was the forerunner of all modern illustrated political journals. Charlie Hebdo, for instance, is a direct descendant. Le Charivari was not overtly political and offered more lighthearted fare in the way of caricatures of manners, fashion, and society. Philipon used its popularity as a way to help finance Le Caricature, which was often subject to fines and punishments because of its political views — Philipon was jailed three times during 1831–1833, serving 13 months and paying heavy fines.
Despite the setbacks, Philipon persevered — and with high standards. He employed and encouraged the best young artists of the time, who often began their careers as caricaturists. Among the artists Philipon chose were Honoré Daumier, J. J. Grandville, Henry Monnier, Charles-Joseph Traviès, and Auguste Desperet; Philipon had taste. He also hired the best writers, including his friend Balzac, who addressed Philipon in 1841 as “Mon cher Ponpon, Duc de Lithographie, Marquis du Dessin, Comte du Bois Gravé, Baron de Charge et Chevalier des Caricatures…” (My dear Ponpon, Duke of Lithography, Marquis of Drawing, Count of Woodcut, Baron Burlesque, Sir Caricature…)
Philipon is best known for creating one of the images that defined his era: Louis Philippe as a pear. Since Philipon first drew it during a court appearance in 1831, it has become synonymous with the erstwhile king. Philipon defended himself by asserting the image he had published, that of the king as a plasterer, was a satire of the government in general, not of the king himself. He cleverly proved his point by creating a series of metamorphic drawings that began with the king’s face and, in three more drawings, transformed into a pear. A meme was born. He argued that if every portrait with a resemblance to the king could be prosecuted, then even a drawing of a pear could be illegal. He declared that every “grotesque, satiric, or offensive image” would have to be brought to trial to determine if it was the king’s “nose, his mouth, his eyes which one ridicules.” He lost his battle, was sentenced to six months in jail, and fined two thousand francs. But he won the war: Louis Philippe was endlessly caricatured as a pear, both in La Caricature and Le Charivari and in other journals and books in France and abroad. So astute an observer as William Makepeace Thackeray recalled in The Paris Sketch Book (1840) that “[e]very one who was at Paris a few years since must recollect the famous ‘poire’ which was chalked upon all the walls of the city and which bore so ludicrous a resemblance to Louis Philippe […] La Poire is immortal.” Thackeray’s observations were confirmed by perhaps the greatest poet and critic of his time, Charles Baudelaire, who recalled in his study of Philipon that “it is the Olympian and pyramidal Pear, of litigious memory, that dominates and crowns the whole fantastic epic.”
Apart from the pear images, Philipon published other scathing attacks on the government, and was so successful that it inspired a pro-government imitator, La Charge (think Fox News and Breitbart), a conservative weekly journal featuring unsigned articles and virtually unsigned caricatures; they bore only initials. La Charge, first published in October 1832, lasted until February 1834. An editorial piece in 1833 declared:
There is running throughout Paris an epidemic disease against which they have forgotten to establish sanitary precautions […] This epidemic is called journalism […] Periodicals pustulate; it is a regular pest; the air is impregnated with them. Soon each inhabitant of Paris will put out his own paper.
(How strangely familiar are the words used to attack the press, and how unexpectedly prophetic is the concept of all citizens having their own newspapers — or Twitter accounts.)
After 28 governmental seizures and nine prosecutions, La Caricature was shut down by the government in 1835. For nearly two centuries, there has been no way to study this impressive output of 462 separate prints, no way to put into visual context Philipon’s monumental achievement, unless one had access to the holdings of the Bibliothèque Nationale or of a handful of other institutions. Many books have been published on the history of caricature, and they always include several of La Caricature’s notorious images. There are also catalogues raisonnés of some of the artists, especially Daumier and Gavarni. But nowhere was to be found the entire output of so seminal a journal. Until now.
A large volume has just been published entitled Charles Philipon, La Caricature, 1830-1835. Lithographies complètes. An Illustrated Catalogue Raisonné of the Lithographs, and its timeliness is notable. The many correlations between the issues of press rights and freedoms affecting us today and those of the 1830s are stunning, and one can’t help but notice that the battles between liberals and conservatives never abate. Tyrants arise with frequency. Fools are more common than heroes — but while heroes might be in short supply, they always appear. We await our Philipon.
While we wait, we can make a careful and useful study of the images that caused so much repression, and chart the development of some notable artists whose careers were launched by Philipon, especially Daumier. One of his most well known images in La Caricature is the audacious “Ah! Tu Veux Te Frotter à La Presse!” (1833), in which a printer crushes Louis Philippe in his printing press. (The news media today would do well to remember this image.) Another notorious image is “Le Passé, Le Présent, L’Avenir” (1834), which shows Louis Philippe’s face as the customary pear, with three different expressions: a pleasant (if inane) face from the beginning of his reign; a stern, unpleasant face for the present; and a shriveled face representing the future.
The fact that the image of Louis Philippe as a pear will always be linked to his reign demonstrates that caricature can be a potent political tool. That remains the case: news has recently broken that Winnie the Pooh has been banned in China because some online Chinese bloggers have compared the beloved bear to President Xi, a comparison Mr. Xi finds offensive enough to censor. The skin of autocrats is notoriously thin. (If he could, would Trump ban caricatures of his hair? But then, even a “normal” drawing of his coif would look like an exaggeration.) We must be grateful that, while the pear and the bear have been censored, the hair remains undisturbed, despite its wearer’s inclinations to curtail the First Amendment.
The usefulness of this book is irrefutable, and the inclusion of an artist index is more than helpful, but it suffers from a poor layout and faulty design. On some pages the type is inexplicably large; there are essays lifted from prior works without any context or explanation; there are occasional typos (“47 juillet” instead of “7 juillet”), and some captions are peculiarly placed because no effort was made to coordinate the layout. It was without doubt a huge task to organize all the images and information, but it is a pity that the book has such a slap-dash appearance.
The book is laid out chronologically, with each image illustrated (some in color), and with descriptive, interpretive texts both in French and English (although the English text is often abbreviated). The text provides needed information in order to understand some of the visual references, but many need no verbal clues: “Eloquence Fulchironne,” an image of the members of the Chamber of Deputies, depicts them from behind as they rise to vote, putting their derrières front and center — the meaning is clear. Similarly, Daumier’s “Vous Avez La Parole, Expliquez-Vous” depicts a gagged and restrained man (probably Philipon) appearing before a judge. The title reads, “Your turn to speak, go ahead and explain yourself, you are free to do so.” The irony of this image is as forceful today as it was in 1835. To anyone studying 19th-century French history and art, the development of caricature, or censorship, this book is essential. For the rest, it is a visual treat — and an eerily timely one. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.